Theatrical Morality: a conversation with Eric Ting and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Last month, Artistic Director Eric Ting called playwright (and close friend) Branden Jacobs-Jenkins to discuss the genesis of Everybody, the politics of choosing, morality in theater and the world, and more. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

Eric Ting: I want to reach back—I remember you talking to me about an idea you had way back in the day…you kind of sheepishly said to me, “remember that play called Everyman…?” Tell me the origins of Everybody.

Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins: Every play I write is actually the confluence of different impulses that all become the same thing eventually. First, right out of An Octoroon, which was a melodrama, director Sarah Benson and I began this really interesting conversation about morality in the theater. Is theater still a moral force? Is there a relationship between morality and the theater? Because there’s this assumption that people make that when you enter the theater it automatically makes you a better person, or a more engaged person. What An Octoroon taught me is that the theatrical form itself is pretty apolitical. Theater itself can be used for evil as well as good. So I was interested in what would make theater a moral good.

Secondly, I’d been flirting with an adaptation of Emperor Jones by Eugene O’Neill. I had this weird revelation during the 20th reread of that play that actually, it’s structured like Everyman. It’s kind of a weird twist on it, to unpack a black psyche using this form, but I realized that I was becoming more and more interested in the Everyman urtext that I perceived inside of it.

Third, [founding Artistic Director of Signature Theater] Jim Houghton—who you know was a major force in my life, in many ways, and many dimensions—he was at the time battling cancer and we knew that he was going to retire. He asked me to be in his last season at the Signature, so I had a year to make a play and I thought it was going to be this Emperor Jones thing. But taking in the effects that his dying was having on his institution, and feeling like I was in this environment where his death was constantly on people’s minds and in the air, but no one was allowed to talk about it. So I felt like: obviously what I need to do is ditch Emperor Jones and do this adaptation of this weird morality play!

So that was three tributaries that all led to the choice to do Everybody. The thing that really put a fire under it was Jim. Jim died having never seen the production sadly, but he did come to one of the first readings that I did of it which was really important to me

ET: I didn’t know that. That’s beautiful. Can you talk a little bit about when the conceit of the lottery entered the picture?

BJJ:  As I was trying to figure out how to adapt it, the obvious question to me was, who is Everyman?  At the time now it’s almost a cliche to even go down this thought process, but I was like: why does it have to be a white man? It’s assumed that it’s going to be a white man, that was the original conceit of it—both the version we all know, but also the one that it was based on, the original Dutch version. It was a white dude going through life and I thought: what if it’s a woman? And I tried that and didn’t love the pressure it put on femininity and it also seemed to give male viewers an out or something. It puts it at a remove from them. Part of the journey of the play is watching the person move beyond the confines of the body, which is what identity is really rooted in as far as we understand it. So for awhile I just tried all these different ideas and then I thought: what if I didn’t choose? What if I released that choice? The thing we can all relate to is the chaos and chance and the different ways that life takes its forms. Life takes the same path. What’s funny is it somehow makes it anti-theater in that regard, because in some ways I made something that’s impossible to rehearse. But also life is impossible to rehearse, you just learn some things and hope. Working with that metaphor became the key to the whole experience. Similarly the whole point of this was to make us question every assumption we have about making theater. Theater is about rehearsal and about repeating action, so how do you build a rehearsal for a thing that won’t by nature repeat?

ET: Do you think critics should see it more than once before they write the review?

BJJ: I think you could encourage them to come back. During the original production, we saw the chatboards, everyone was saying “this is all made up, everyone gets their parts beforehand”…no one wanted to believe the truth of the experience, which is hilarious. Why would we go through all this work to trick you? What would that be worth?

ET: One of the reasons I wanted to produce this was so that I could go to every performance. Because a normal audience member doesn’t get to see that multitude of iterations. I’m curious, this has had a few productions: are there things that have surprised you about it? About the way that audiences have received it?

BJJ: That’s a good question. Surprised me. I’ve only been involved in two productions of it, the original one at Signature, and then there was another one at Julliard right after that. There are people who went to both who had wildly different experiences which I thought was interesting. I think it’s all about the fact that they stepped into the river at some point. Either they liked the first one better or they liked the second one better. It’s funny, the conviction people feel about how they felt about something when I’m like, actually you saw something that only six people saw, who knows? In some kind of sly way I can’t take responsibility for them having a bad time. Because it was a culmination of factors that led to that kind of thing. But I’m glad they enjoyed it the second time, or I’m glad they enjoyed it the first time more.

This is obviously a love letter to actors. One of the real joys is if you get to see it over and over again, there are these moments where you get to see an actor make a totally inspired choice. That could have never ever happened unless they were playing against the right scene partner, in the right moment, and when you see those things, they feel sort of singular, really special. And you feel very—when you think about what these actors actually go through every day to be ready for this weird moment where they draw a card and they know what their night’s going to look like—you’re just like “oh my god actors are genius amazing people.” It’s amazing to see people play with the same thing, once the game is sort of in their bones, over the course of the run, some of them start doing different things, they start to challenge each other and challenge other members of the ensemble, on the team. It starts to feel kind of like a sporting event!

ET: They screw with each other, is what you’re saying.

BJJ: Yeah, exactly. The original company, we had some of them who knew each other from college. And whenever they would play something different every time—and clearly they were trying to mess each other up—it was so riveting and amazing. Or we had Brooke Bloom, she was 7 months pregnant, it was crazy. And her Everybody was just obviously so special. This woman is negotiating the fact that she’s got a baby inside her, it’s just unbelievable! But then to see her playing these other parts, she can’t deny the story that her stomach presented. She always had to make sense of that in the scene and that was always so amazing. Then to see it at Julliard was so amazing, they totally found a different way in. In some ways it was a totally different show, but it was really still the heart of it was still there and it still moved the same way. And it was with actors who were are all roughly the same age because they were in school. Something about the combination of people always suggests a different canvas or palette, that’s always satisfying to me.

ET: Let’s reach back to the lottery a little bit, did you do research around the medieval pageant play?

BJJ: I did. I didn’t do a lot in terms of things that would have felt like I was directing the show, if that makes sense. It’s not even clear that this play was written to be performed, exactly. It didn’t quite show up in anyone’s repertoire until the 19th century. For awhile it was thought of as a tradition, a kind of rhetoric thing. People wrote these plays as one-offs, as debates, competitions. In some ways it was a very irregular or abnormal piece of medieval theater. It wasn’t pageant, it was probably performed in a small chamber-ish way, originally, by monks. I tried to do a lot of reading on medieval theology and ideas at the time of death and dying, things like that. A lot of it was just trying to understand where this play came from and why it took the form it took, because one of the things that’s so striking about it is that it feels to me very self-aware for a piece of theater that old. It totally thinks of itself as theater, I think that’s so interesting. We think of things back then as being crude story, there’s just so much wit in the play about people playing objects.

It wasn’t performed by street players, it was performed by educated people in a monastery. That’s partly behind the impulse to have the actors start in the audience. Dissolving that line between life and theater. That’s partly what the whole play is predicated on. It’s literally unpacking “all the world’s a stage,” that is the working metaphor of the piece. It does feel important to me that you have to remind the audience that they are the ones being talked about.

ET: You talked about your conversations with Sarah Benson about the moral force of theater. So the play is out there in the world, the world is what the world is right now. Do you ever think about what role this play might have?

BJJ: Our tech was happening literally the weekend of the Muslim ban, where people were leaving tech to go down to the airport and protest. Less than six months out of Trump being elected, out of the election. It did feel weird: things about Jim Houghton passing when he did—he was such a force of unconditional belief and love and optimism and community—he just believed in humanity. He believed in theater as a potentially significant force of good. I still to this day think about what his response would have been to the election. I just wondered what he would have felt about this world and sometimes I’m really thankful that he left before he saw that world, to be such a helpful guy. But it did feel really key to me that I wanted to make a piece that felt affirming in some way. That’s the funny thing about the original too is that it’s a play about death but also it’s a play about hope. There’s a hope for humanity to change itself, to die a noble death, to right its wrongs. As a flawed person—I mean back then it was basically a public service announcement for Catholicism, but it was still this idea that all a person needs to know is that change is possible, that redemption is possible, and that’s the perfect thing: to just tell people that there are other choices in life.

With the lottery, chance has made the choice: this is the person that you have to identify with if you want to think about your life and death, if you want this play to work, this is who’s in the room with you right now, and this is who chance has elected to be this person. That for me was about asking people to acknowledge their capacity for radical empathy. What if—can you do the work right now, can you imagine that what this woman is going through on stage is actually a metaphor for your life as well? That felt really important to me, I think that was something that was important in that moment too, was to feel connected to people who didn’t look like you but who reminded you that they were in possession of the same thing you are, which is a body that is going to die. That felt important. It honestly feels like there’s an existential threat right now. To not just America and Americans, but to the world. It’s important that we take at least 75 minutes to acknowledge that and to throw some words out around it. I think that’s what Everybody ultimately was trying to be in this moment, in that moment specifically but definitely now. It’s like, what if there was a way to talk about identity politics that was inclusive, that also acknowledged the reality of death and the reality of chance and change. That’s why I’m always so moved when I think that the roots of this play are apparently in Buddhism. You go back through all of it and it’s such a Buddhist fable.

ET: Nataki [Garrett, Everybody director] and I were chatting to a few guests last week and they asked, “Is there anything shocking to us?” And I remember saying something along the lines of how shocking it was to be sitting in an audience in 2018, and listening to characters identified as Love and Death and God, and what it meant to feel an audience engage with something that was operating on a level of symbolism or metaphor. For me, that was the first real challenge of the play. Everything else was a pleasure and a joy, like: Lottery! But then the moment that it started to become clear that these were abstractions, it felt like a delicious challenge but it felt very challenging.

BJJ: It’s how theater was consumed for so long. This was the theater that Shakespeare was watching, that’s why he has characters named Vice. It’s just funny that it’s become so unfamiliar to us in some way. I joke that this play is Buddhism but that was really the a-ha! moment for me. This is a really old story. It’s been going on since there were stories. The version I thought I knew, this English version, is cribbed from a Dutch version, and the Dutch version was influenced by this thought—and then things get hazier and hazier but, this is a story that is just going to keep getting passed down. As long as there’s language. As long as there’s people.

Everybody plays through August 5. Get tickets or more information here.

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